After leading Customer Success as a VP and CCO at companies like Salesforce, TEAM Informatics, and Act-On Software, Matt Zelen made a career change. He became COO (at AppZen and now at UserTesting), but he says it was a natural transition and not a drastic change. 


So for the ‘nuffsaid podcast we asked Matt about this career move—covering how it was possible, the skills necessary to be effective as a COO, and the key relationships he’s needed to build. 


The following is an edited summary of his response. (Go here to listen to the full recording.) 

Why "COO" was a natural fit

I’ll start by saying I didn’t start out on a path to become a COO. I'm genuinely passionate about Customer Success, so achieving the CCO role at Act-On Software was the pinnacle of my career at the time. 


But it wasn’t long before COO became a natural next step: for one, I really enjoy solving problems. Organizations I’ve worked in and talked with need a leader in the COO role who can find problems across the organization and solve them. So for CCOs looking to move into the COO role, the “second in command” role, I’d recommend going outside your responsibilities to look at the whole business and see if there are gaps you can fill. 


At AppZen for example, the CEO was really interested in the go-to-market side of the business. So I jumped in to find areas we could be doing better as a business in other areas, like HR. And at UserTesting, I started out as CCO but we made a structural change to have renewals and CS within the revenue organization. I saw that I could have an expanded impact in other areas of the business, like infrastructure, operations, and some of the CS functions. 


Moving from CCO to COO doesn’t usually happen in a “jump” but rather a change that happens with iterations. And it needs to come from the CCO finding areas they can genuinely add value; if they’re pushing to be COO and take responsibilities or help areas that don’t need it, they’ll end up in a contentious situation. 

Learn to identify "priority" problems and act on them

COOs usually complement the CEO. The CEO will offload things to the COO that they personally don't want to focus on, don't have the skills to focus on, or don’t have the time to focus on. 


For that reason, there are skills that CCOs should onboard into their toolkit now, so that when the opportunity is available they can take on the tasks that the CEO gives them. The first part of that toolkit is the ability to take ownership. CCOs need to build the muscle to see a problem, know whether it's a priority problem, and then take ownership to solve that problem.  

People may talk about operational excellence and being detail-oriented — but that stuff can be learned. Having the knack to identify priority problems and taking ownership by saying 'I'm going to fix it' is so much more difficult to come by and adds huge value to an organization.


Another skillset you’ll need to hone while working towards the COO role is the ability to learn on the fly. You have to have the bravery to just dive in, figure it out as you go, and drive towards an outcome.

Don't get tunnel vision with CS. Understand the broader organization

To begin honing the skills necessary to be an effective COO, Customer Success leaders should be adept at identifying problems not only important to their own department, but more importantly, they need the ability to see the broader problems that affect a whole organization. 


So many challenges that impact CS are not specific to CS—they're cross-functional challenges around setting expectations for other departments and knowing if the actual platform has the ability to deliver on those expectations. So if a CS leader has their head down, while swimming in their own lane, unaware of broader organizational issues, they’ll never make it to the COO level. 

View other executives as allies or the partnership won't work 

In my opinion, the most critical skill of any leader is the emotional intelligence to be able to collaborate across and understand the perspective of who you're working with, what their priorities are, and what they need to get done.


Let’s say you need your Engineering team to fix an issue, but they're simultaneously being held responsible for a high-stress release. As a CS leader, you’ve got to be aware of that. 

Fixing cross-functional issues means getting in the trenches with other department heads, figuring out what's going on, and understanding how you can influence an outcome in the right way to get everyone on the same page.


If you come in like a bull in a china shop, it's not going to end well. CS leaders need emotional empathy to understand other perspectives in a given situation. 


Some Customer Success leaders see other executives, like the Product leader or Revenue leader, as obstacles. If CS leaders want to build their presence (and ability to move to COO), that strategy won’t work. 


If you see yourself as an adversary against another executive, I recommend you both go have a beer, figure it out, and realize that you are on the same team. 


This goes back to the emotional intelligence side of things. I know that our CRO has a ton of stress, right? I'm aware of his perspective and his paradigm. This knowledge has allowed me to have conversations with him about how I can help him be successful. If he wins, I win. If you can get two people in a room that genuinely want to fix the problem together, you win. 

You must be able to drive and influence decisions at the executive level with data

Many CS leaders are known on the executive team as the thoughtful customer champions, who are collaborative, and great to work with. They often have a hard time influencing the major strategic decisions owned by a COO such as the product roadmap, pricing, and the ICP.


To go from “the nice executive” to the one actually driving and influencing major strategic decisions, CS leaders need to focus primarily on driving data-driven conversations. Take emotion out of it, speak to the facts, and I guarantee your peers will get in the habit of turning to you to make strategic decisions. 


The biggest challenge I had early on in my career in Customer Success, is that CS often tends to be an afterthought. Because of this, as a leader, it's on you to build relationships and engender trust and respect across your peers so when you do say something, your peers will know it’s data-driven, and takes into account the entire mission of the organization. This takes time and experience. 


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